Literary elite bring their words to life
Reaching out to the audience, the stars of Books 09 showed the writing world's style and spirit, says Alison Walsh
'Glamour and gravitas is the order of the day," said festival director Madeleine Keane as she welcomed the crowds on a glorious afternoon to the opening of Books 2009.
Over the next three days, there was plenty of both in evidence, in a discussion which ranged from Dickens to the Celtic Tiger, via true crime, women's fiction, social injustice and the challenges and joys of being a writer.
The opening night, however, was all about the glamour. In her first public event as an author, Amy Huberman, author of the bestselling Hello Heartbreak, won the audience over with her charm and down-to-earth honesty about her journey from actress to writer. And the master of literary fiction, John Banville, was in philosophical mode talking about his new novel The Infinities, a departure into the world of Zeus and Hermes as they look down upon a dying man and his family. The book, and his talk, contained much of his priceless wisdom and meticulous attention to detail -- who else would describe a woman's mouth as having "the tang of fish slime and sawdust".
The four young writers who assembled the following day to read from their work had more down-to-earth concerns; to describe the world that we live in now.
A veteran of three novels, Chris Binchy read from his latest, Open-handed, which reimagines the dark undercurrents of our economic boom. As a teacher and a writer, Fiachra Sheridan is well placed to see the realities of Dublin's north inner city, which has changed so little since the Eighties setting of his debut, The Runners. Peter Murphy, veteran of the music scene, brought his unique gothic touch to his native Enniscorthy, replete with scary crows and crossbow-wielding locals in his debut, John the Revelator. Meanwhile, Trevor Byrne, whose debut, Ghosts and Lightning, is rich in the Dublin vernacular, deftly reinterpreted Irish myths and legends -- and made the audience howl with laughter -- at the fish-finger of knowledge.
As well as the ghosts of the Celtic Tiger, the realities of the Eighties provided a festival theme. Claire Keegan explained why she returned to that decade in her novel, All Names Have Been Changed: "I was 12 during the Eighties and I had to document what was here before the city was eradicated," she said.
Her fellow reader, author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, was Marina Lewycka, who returned to a different past in her new novel, We Are All Made of Glue, which explores the grim events of Palestine in 1948 and a hilarious interchange with an estate agent involving a pair of Velcro handcuffs and an Ikea headboard. "I'm a funny writer who writes about serious things, so I have to find a way of combining the two," she said. And while both came to writing in entirely different ways -- Claire Keegan being published in her 20s and Lewycka after many years of grim rejection -- both agreed on the sheer hard work that writing entails, as Lewycka laughed: "You push the story up the hill and it rolls its way down again."
Meg Rosoff, author of the spectacular success How I Live Now explained why she writes so richly about adolescents: "Because I was one for a very long time! I never quite made it to adulthood and this is typical of many of my generation," she mused. Always a risk-taker, her new novel, The Bride's Farewell, takes her to the workhouses and horse fairs of the 19th Century, but she insists, "It's still about the same thing, the search for a place in life."
All three would have nodded at the honest, funny discussion by a panel of Ireland's top popular women's writers: Anita Notaro, Patricia Scanlan, Sheila O'Flanagan and Cathy Kelly.
The doyenne of the genre, Patricia Scanlan, joked about her approach to her first publisher. "If you would like to publish my book, you'll be a millionaire," she told him, to much audience laughter, while reminding us that it was she who invented the Irish women's genre with her first novel City Girls in 1990. Anita Notaro walked away from a successful career as a producer at RTE, knowing she wanted to write, but without a word to her name. "They sent me to a psychologist!" said the now-bestselling author of Take a Look at Me Now. Sheila O'Flanagan fitted writing into the corners of her very busy working days in finance, and her latest, The Perfect Man, is a number one besteller. And Cathy Kelly, who in spite of a succession of bestsellers, including her latest UK number one, Once in a Lifetime, judges herself with the simple question, "Have I done what I wanted to do with this book?"
Literary ambition was also at the heart of two of this year's festival highlights, appearances by William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks, as well as a shared love of Dickens and a desire to chronicle the sprawling mass that is London. As Boyd explained, "A hankering came on as I saw [London] become the most polyglot, multi-ethnic city on the planet. I wondered what do you do if your identity is lost in a ruthless city like London, do you become a feral inhabitant, a scavenging peasant?" he mused, referring to his hero Adam Kindred's progress through the underbelly of the city in Ordinary Thunderstorms.
Faulks opted for a scabrous, funny satire on London life, whose vivid characters, banker John Veals, literary critic R Tranter, pickle tycoon Farooq Al Rashid, owe a debt to the vivid creations of Dickens, as does the tone in which the author's anger is never far from the surface, but in which, ultimately, the power of love and of words is redemptive.
A writer who reminded us all, powerfully, of just what words can achieve is Brian Keenan. A softly spoken man, he nonetheless held the room in his hand as he talked to journalist Miriam O'Callaghan about his new work, I'll Tell Me Ma, a richly evocative memoir of his Belfast childhood. His solitary but happy childhood, he acknowledged, gave him the mental resilience to survive what he now refers to as his "holiday", for four years in Beirut: "I had places to go in my mind, and I didn't succumb to madness." Quite rightly, as Miriam put it, "you are etched on our consciousness because of your searing honesty."
The atmosphere was electric as Michael Mansfield QC took to the stage to talk movingly and urgently about the controversial cases on which he had worked. From the Marchioness disaster to the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, the list was endless, but his sense of outrage and tireless energy remained vivid, as did his obvious charisma.
But after these fireworks, it was fitting and appropriate to end the literary festival with a warm and engaging encounter between the queen of Irish writing, Edna O'Brien, and Senator Eoghan Harris, who clearly enjoyed immersing themselves in the debauched and richly entertaining world of Byron, subject of O'Brien's latest work, Byron in Love.
Crackling energy, and not debauchery, was certainly in evidence at the crime festival, ably co-ordinated by Declan Burke, tireless crime enthusiast and editor of the Crime Always Pays blog (crimealwayspays.blogspot. com). In a series of sessions featuring Declan Hughes, Cormac Miller, Colin Bateman, Alex Barclay and John Connolly, and introducing hot new talents such as Stuart Neville (The Twelve), Mandasue Heller (Two-Faced) and Ava McCarthy (The Insider) among others, crime buffs and fans discussed the finer points of a genre which has now overtaken women's fiction as the most popular in the world. "The interaction between audience and writer was particularly good," Burke enthused, "with the writers opening up the discussion to the floor, which made it much more of a community thing."
This community spirit continued the next day with a hectic day of workshops devoted to the craft of writing. Eager students gathered to hear Amanda Brunker and Claudia Carroll talk about putting pen to paper; Clodagh Murphy talking about the story behind her huge success The Disengagement Ring; Roisin Meaney and Fiona O'Brien discuss creativity; and Tara Heavey, Noelle Harrison, Catherine Dunne and Niamh Greene talk about writing for an audience.
All the sessions overran, such was the enthusiasm of all involved, reminding us, as Declan Burke so aptly put it, "that there is a real community in writing". And that, after all, is what Books 2009 is all about.